Red white and blue graphic with white Y logo above Veterans/Military ERG logo.

Veterans Day is observed on November 11 across the US.

Veterans Day and Military Family Month make November special for many. At the Tampa YMCA, we are proud to launch the Military Veteran Resource Network, an Employee Resource Group (ERG) based on popular demand from staff.

The group has 11 members ranging from veterans to leadership, military spouses/family members, and supporters of service members. It started this summer and Meagan Smithyman, Executive Director, Community Schools & Family Outreach at the Sulphur Springs Y is leading the ERG. Wayne Johnson, Senior Program Director at the Central City YMCA, and former Staff Sergeant in the US Army is the group’s Vice Chair.

“We began at the request of several staff that either served in the military or could identify with our surrounding military community. We realize that oftentimes veterans lack access to services, employment post-service can be a challenge and military family members are looking for a community to belong to as they may have moved duty stations. Tampa is home to MacDill Air Force base south of downtown, and the VA (Veterans’ Affairs) has a hospital and several clinics throughout Tampa. We know the military community is extensive,” explains Meagan, who started with the Tampa Y in 2019 as a Summer Camp Counselor at Sulphur Springs.

Commenting on the reason for joining the group, Meagan shares:

“I have not served in the military, however, my father did for 24 years in the United States Navy. We lived all over the world, and most of my life was spent in communities that were also largely military.”

“I have a profound respect for our service members and their families, each of whom makes sacrifices to ensure our country’s safety. I remember being the new kid every three years, and the challenge to make friends. I’ve seen my mother give up a stable career to follow my father and support him. I know my father’s struggle to find a civilian job that aligned with his skills and experience once he retired. This group and our Association have the opportunity to provide a sense of community, and meaningful employment options to these individuals, in addition to mental wellness offered through our existing programs and services,” she adds.

Wayne Johnson, former Staff Sergeant, was in the US Army for eight years. He served in Operation Desert Shield, Desert Storm (Kuwait and Iraq) and Operation Joint Endeavor (Russia) during his military career. Helping lead the ERG is meaningful to him on many levels.

“Joining the military at 18 impacted my entire life for the better. At age 19, I was serving on the front lines of the Gulf War. I was able to utilize the G.I. Bill to attend and graduate college. My years in service pale in comparison to the debt I will forever owe to the United States Army. Any opportunity I can give back that is focused on the military, I’m always willing.”

“I recently completed the YMCA’s year-long Diabetes Prevention Program and lost 25 pounds. Many veterans in the community could improve their health and well-being by taking advantage of our Y programs. The Military Veteran Resource Network has the potential to expand the walls of the YMCA to reach former military service members. There is a drastic shortage of young people joining the armed forces nationally. We engage thousands of youth at the YMCA. The Military Veteran Resource Network could also be a great platform for youth to have direct contact with former military members in a safe environment,” Wayne continues.

Aligning with our newly rolled out Strategic Plan focusing on filling critical community voids like mental health, and to “become a local destination for our veterans to grow in health and connectedness,” the group’s goals are to not only support current veteran employees but also engage the veteran and military community in and around Tampa Y Centers.

“Supporting military families is specifically highlighted in our strategic plan, as is mental health for all communities and recruitment of quality individuals. We expect that our work will impact each of these focus areas. This includes cultivating a sense of belonging and a welcoming environment for those serving in, or connected to the military, as well as those who are interested in one day joining the military,” adds Meagan.

“We also hope to identify employment opportunities for veterans, as well as family members who may be settling in the Tampa Bay community or living in their current duty station. Lastly, mental health is an area of focus for so many, but we want to be intentional in providing access and resources for service members who may have experienced trauma and/or are adjusting to civilian life.”

Speaking of which, Tampa Y was recently recognized as a Veteran Safe Place by The Fire Watch, a Florida-based veterans nonprofit dedicated to ending veteran suicide. We have over 65 “watch standers,” trained to be “vigilant to the concerns of veterans and to direct them to the support they need.”

As for the ERG’s future goals, Meagan continues:

“We are exploring partnerships with organizations that already serve veterans and the military in hopes of gleaning knowledge of what can be most beneficial for this population. We recognize that each military experience, based on length of service, duty station and even position within the branches of service can be unique so we want to provide unique yet fitting opportunities. Additionally, looking at our strategic plan, we’ve identified some ways to support teens interested in the military that also aligns with our goals to engage veteran communities.”

Published Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023